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Karl Malone's Biggest Loss

After forward finds a new life with Lakers, his mother's death knocks him out of whack

August 31, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

Weeks before she died, Shirley Malone sat across from her son, Karl, in the kitchen of his ranch house, set on 5,000 acres of timber and ponds in southern Arkansas.

She was 64. Karl had been her youngest for 20 years, and then she had her last, a girl. Still, it was Karl who would forever be regarded as the baby, even if he would grow to 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds, with arms and shoulders almost as thick as the trees he felled and pulled through town on the beds of massive logging trucks.

It was late July, and Karl would leave soon for New York, for the start of practice for the Olympic qualifying team with a handful of other NBA superstars. Before that, he would soak every moment from beneath the shade tree in the yard in El Dorado, every creak from the porch swing, every sentiment from a family large in so many ways.

His mother recently divorced, Karl had bought her a new home in a nearby town, and as they spoke he suddenly asked, "Mom, what is your favorite color?"

"Burgundy," she said, curious.

"What's your dream vehicle?"

"A pickup," she said.

A month later, Karl Malone laughed without sadness.

"I never knew, all these years, that my mom loved pickup trucks," he said, his eyes turned at the corners, amused by how he'd arrived at the same preference as a boy.

Shirley Malone put a few miles on her burgundy pickup, some of them back and forth between her place and his, and died on Aug. 13 of a massive heart attack. Karl left the Olympic team before it played a game, buried his mother six days later and on Friday afternoon, lounging on a couch in the Newport Beach offices of his agent, Dwight Manley, said he would play his first season as a Laker "with a heavy heart."

"I realize that things happen for a reason," he said. "I'm Baptist. I grew up with my mom taking me to church. I'm not going to lie to you. Everybody says they never question God, knowing he never makes a mistake. But, have I looked around and seen women that are older than my mom? My mom didn't drink, my mom didn't smoke, my mom didn't do any of that. Do I look around? Do I see people who are older and drinking and smoking and still living? Have I questioned God 'Why me?' Yeah. But, have I been upset about it? No. Because I realize that everything he does is for a reason. Do we understand it all the time? No.

"I was on such a high. A new situation. Different situation. Family's great. Wife and kids great. Training for the Olympics. Just a high. And then, as high as I was, I'm just that low.... I know at the end of the day it's positive. If I ever get the answer to why my mom, I'll tell you. It was the toughest, man."

It helps some that his mother, in the weeks before her death, Malone said, "was the happiest I've ever seen her."

She took pleasure from Karl's decision to leave the Utah Jazz after 18 years to sign -- at significant financial sacrifice -- with the Lakers, a move he'd discussed privately for years. When he returned to Arkansas from his public introduction at Staples Center, Karl recalled her telling him, "You never cease to amaze me."

She delighted in Karl's new happiness, with his new team and his new home in Newport Beach with the view of the Pacific Ocean, from where he'd call while knocking the sand from his sneakers. He turned 40 in July, celebrated with a cigar and a slug of red wine straight from the bottle, a rare break from a health regimen that would demolish men half his age, and among the blessings he counted was his mother's health. So, it hurt.

On course to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time NBA scoring record and earn seven or eight times his Laker salary of $1.5 million if he'd stayed even one more year in Utah, Malone chose the Lakers of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson, the Lakers of three championships in four years, the Lakers of long morning jogs along the beach.

He did not return to the Olympic qualifying tournament, but he intends to play in the Olympic Games next summer. He has not watched the tournament, having only recently been able to soften the hard edges of his grief.

"It just knocked everything out of whack," Malone said of his mother's death. "I didn't think about basketball or nothing. I just thought about chartering a plane and getting to Arkansas. Even now, it brings back memories. So, I just haven't watched it."

Terry Malone, a year older than Karl, helps run Malone Properties back in El Dorado. He talks the way Karl would had Karl never left Arkansas, never gone off to Salt Lake City, never spent most of his lifetime in front of radio microphones and television cameras.

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